In 2008, former Philadelphia Police Department officer Christa Hayburn sued the city over an incident involving her former supervisor, Lt. Carl Holmes. She alleged Holmes had raped her in a squad car outside of a party, as dozens of other police caroused a short distance away.
The alleged assault took place two years before she filed her suit. But, fearing reprisal, Hayburn didn’t want to lodge a formal complaint until she felt she had an escape plan. After sustaining an injury in the field that she knew would lead to her early retirement from the force, she reported the incident to the department’s Internal Affairs Division, which investigates police malfeasance.
Unsure of what to expect by coming forward, Hayward was stunned by her collision with a reporting and investigatory system she now describes as “a joke.”
She recalls being grilled for “six to eight hours” by Internal Affairs investigators, who demanded she produce witnesses and expressed doubt about her version of events. The Internal Affairs chief overseeing her case would himself later be accused of sexual misconduct charges by a female subordinate.
“They were interrogating me about the whole thing, everything I had experienced that night. They kept asking me more questions: Who saw us, was I drinking, who else I did tell,” she said. “And the same inspector who was overseeing this was doing the same kind of thing to his secretary – this was the man in charge of my sexual assault investigation.”
Internal Affairs tossed out her claim. Hayburn, like other frustrated city employees in similar straits, opted to sue the city outright. Today, almost a decade later, she says her traumatizing encounter with the city’s system for reporting internal misconduct illustrates flaws that still persist in its handling of sexual abuse complaints.
Public records largely corroborate Hayburn’s assertion that the city’s system for reporting misconduct is broken – not just in the police department, but across municipal government. A Philadelphia Weekly investigation found municipal employees have long been forced to navigate a confusing and problematic reporting system that varies wildly from department to department. As a result, misconduct is rarely documented.
Additionally, the city keeps no centralized database of complaints it receives, undermining the purpose of logging allegations against harassers in the first place. On the rare occasions when a complaint is actually investigated, there is little evidence that abusers face disciplinary action or termination.
The City of Philadelphia, which is Pennsylvania’s second-largest employer, counters that it offers “multiple avenues” for municipal employees to report sexual misconduct. But in practice, the only real option, aside from notifying someone inside their own department – who, as in Hayburn’s case, could be part of the problem – is filing a complaint with the city’s Employee Relations Unit, a branch of the Mayor's Office of Labor Relations whose three staffers are charged with responding to the complaints of roughly 28,000 municipal employees.
Yet in 2015, that unit handled just two complaints from the City of Philadelphia workforce, according to city records obtained through a right-to-know request. That minuscule number is no aberration: In several prior years, the office claims it recorded just a single complaint annually. Over the last decade, the unit functioning as the de facto watchdog for sexual misconduct recorded just 44 complaints in total – about four a year, on average.
Many insiders emphasized that the low tally was not an indicator that misconduct and abuse were not occurring inside City Hall’s fortress-like walls. Numerous current and former city employees privately related personal accounts of inappropriate behavior at the hands of colleagues or superiors – but few said they were even aware that the Employee Relations Unit existed, let alone that they could file a complaint there.
Nina Ahmad, a one-time deputy mayor and former director of the local chapter of the advocacy group National Organization of Women, said the city’s reported figures were laughable.
“You’re just getting the tip of the iceberg, in terms of what actually went down,” she said. “This is nuts.”
While employees can also log complaints with their department’s human resources representative, some branches of government are too small to even have such a position. In those instances, the task of reporting falls to an employee’s supervisor.
This scattershot reporting system appears to have resulted in numerous departments failing to record reports of sexual impropriety altogether. City officials acknowledged some departments deal with even the most incendiary complaints in an informal manner, leaving few trackable records. Some major city departments, like the 500-employee District Attorney’s Office, claimed to have never recorded a sexual harassment complaint.
Only 11 out of 47 city departments were able to produce any internal HR complaints at all. Combined, those agencies recorded 115 sexual misconduct complaints over the past five years – around 20 a year. The vast majority of those emanated from the police and prisons departments, both of which investigate their own personnel matters, largely free from oversight.
Late last year, as #MeToo revelations erupted nationwide, City Council members began inquiring into the city’s handling of sexual misconduct allegations in the workplace – only to discover what newly obtained complaint records now suggest.
“Reports are scattered,” acknowledged Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, who recently sponsored a bill to require mandatory sexual harassment training for city employees. “There has been no consistent way to secure this information across city departments from different agencies who receive sexual harassment complaints.”
Jane Slusser, the chief of staff for Mayor Jim Kenney, emphasized the city’s ongoing efforts to overhaul its policies around sexual harassment, including ramped-up mandatory training, more education on the reporting process and a centralized database to track complaints.
But the city has already paid a high price for not addressing misconduct sooner. Although Hayburn ultimately dropped her lawsuit, she later testified in a separate harassment case brought against Holmes by another female officer. The city eventually agreed to a $1.25 million settlement in that suit. (Holmes remains on the force today.)
Hayburn, who now works with the nonprofit Women Organizing Against Rape, says she wants the city to institute a credible sexual harassment reporting process so other women won’t have to endure what she did.
“What I would love to see, for people who are working for the city of Philadelphia, is an independent entity to handle the process of investigating sexual misconduct cases – not somebody who’s going to protect the institution,” she said. “That’s where the lines get screwed, because the whole persona of police officers is, ‘We’re one of each other.’”
The city freely admits it is missing even basic historical data on sexual harassment, thanks to a lack of central oversight and slipshod record-keeping. In addition to the complete absence of complaints from some departments, like the District Attorney’s Office or the Register of Wills, the city said it kept no catalogue of complaints filed prior to 2012.
“To locate those cases would require a huge amount of time, going through thousands of records of dozens of individual departments,” Kenney spokesman Mike Dunn said, after reporters requested all agency complaint records dating back to 2007. “We do, though, intend to focus our limited resources on eliminating this issue going forward through standardization and centralization of record keeping.”
Simply documenting harassing behavior can be important, said lawyer Steven Auerbach. He is representing former Sheriff’s Office employee Marlaina Williams in a harassment suit against Sheriff Jewell Williams. Auerbach added his client was one of the few employees to actually file a complaint with the Employee Relations Unit.
Ultimately, in January 2018, the unit issued a one-page report in favor of Marlaina Williams. That was it – the ERU says the city’s Office of Human Resources “may take remedial action” – but Auerbach said the finding is still important.
“They did their job. It took forever, but they found that Jewell had sexually harassed these women,” Auerbach said, referring to Williams’ other accusers. “When I tell the jury that an independent agency has corroborated this, how do you think I’ll do in trial? It may encourage the city to settle this matter. It certainly helps someone in my position get justice.”
Professor Susan Bisom-Rapp, an associate dean at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law who has studied sexual harassment for decades, said that while reporting alone was no solution to pervasive harassment, it could serve as an indicator of whether or not broader institutional reforms had been successful.
“When you see so little reporting and you talk to staff and they say it doesn't reflect what's going on on the ground, then those procedures need updating,” she said. “An increase in reporting is a good thing. It means people feel safe enough to come forward.”
As with departmental complaints, harassment lawsuits are also poorly tracked. Records show the city has paid nearly $10 million to settle more than 700 employment-related suits between 2007 and 2017, but the Mayor’s Office could not say how many of these cases pertained to sexual misconduct.
Records received through a right-to-know request showed 10 cases described as “sexual harassment” lawsuits over the past decade, totaling more than $1.5 million in settlement payouts. But other suits that clearly involved sexual harassment were lumped into other categories of litigation due to Law Department policy limiting case classification to a single descriptor.
This shortcoming virtually ensures the true scope of the problem is understated in the official record. Over the last decade, the city settled 41 cases over retaliation claims ($2.15 million), 30 cases over gender discrimination ($1.15 million), seven cases over sexual orientation discrimination ($548,000), and 28 cases involving general “discrimination” ($679,000). An overview of records indicates many of these costly settlements were rooted in sexual impropriety or abuse.
For instance, a $500,000 settlement against the Philadelphia Fire Department over a sex scandal involving a mentally troubled female paramedic was classified only as a “retaliation” case. (That case was initially omitted in a city response to a right-to-know request for sexual harassment settlement records. The city later acknowledged the oversight, citing a database search error.)
Other cases were omitted for similar reasons. The city settled another dubiously classified lawsuit in 2016 with former PPD officer Keisha Johnson for $125,000 after she alleged her former Internal Affairs supervisor, Jerrold Bates, had bullied her into a sexual relationship on threat of termination.
Bates, the same inspector who oversaw Internal Affairs at the time of Hayburn’s sexual assault allegations, regularly masturbated in front of Johnson and fondled her breasts in their office, according to the lawsuit filed against him. But the litigation was listed in city records as a “retaliation” lawsuit instead of sexual harassment. (Bates remains on the police force.)
The city asserts it has fixed at least some of its record-keeping issues.
“The Law Department has made modifications to its database so that going forward, it will be able to record all types of client activity contained in a given case,” said Dunn.
The failure to adequately track – let alone punish – serial abuse before it advances toward a lawsuit has likely cost the city millions as early warning signs go ignored.
“Say there’s one department in the city and it seems especially toxic … then you should look more closely and hold that department responsible,” said Bisom-Rapp. “Instead, you find that officials move the victim around, instead of the abuser. You leave the powerful person in the city government structure there to continue harassment.”
‘Fig leaf’ reform
City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart is expected to soon release the first-ever audit of sexual harassment and assault in city government, with a focus on policies and payouts.
The Kenney administration has meanwhile touted enhanced training programs to combat future abuse. Officials will begin rolling out a citywide database this summer that will allow the Office of Labor Relations to better track complaints across all city agencies.
Slusser, chief of staff to the mayor, said the city has also ramped up mandatory sexual harassment education for supervisors and managers from every five years to every three years. In the current calendar year, the Employee Relations Unit has so far conducted 44 sexual harassment training sessions for more than 1,007 employees – on pace for a record number of annual participants. The trainings also help raise the unit’s long-understated profile as municipal workforce watchdog.
“Training will strengthen the reporting process,” says Councilwoman Reynolds Brown. “Our expectation is that once training occurs, they’ll learn about processes and procedures to lodge the complaint.”
That’s frequently not how things work out post-training, some experts say.
Bisom-Rapp said that government agencies (and big companies) often choose to paper over problems at the top with superficial training programs or new harassment guidelines. She pointed to a 2016 Equal Employment Opportunity Commission report that found those initiatives rarely bring about changes by themselves.
“It’s a fig leaf,” she said. “Change has got to come from the top. It’s more than paper policies and it’s more than training.”
She said it was no coincidence that so many harassment complaints were concentrated in the traditionally male-dominated police and prison departments. In general, researchers have found that discrimination is worst in fields with high levels of “occupational segregation” – jobs where, say, men dominate the top of the hierarchy while most female employees are at the bottom rungs.
Bisom-Rapp said the often white and male-led world of politics and government were little different. She said there was only one way to truly stamp out sexual harassment in City Hall.
“The solution to that isn’t training. It’s finding ways to hire and promote people who look a little different into the ranks of management,” she said. “The more women you have in top positions, the less harassment against women you'll get. The more people of color you have in top positions, the less discrimination you find.”
To be fair, Kenney has won plaudits for bringing in a record number of top female staffers. But Slusser still acknowledged the need for wider hierarchical changes in addition to new policies around training and reporting.
“Training on its own doesn’t change anything,” Kenney’s chief of staff said. “But it does help set the tone for the cultural shift. You can’t expect it to happen overnight, or in a year. It takes a consistent plan of communication driven from the top down.”
In the meantime, critics worry current reform efforts may not have enough teeth to remove chronic offenders from city government. Even when sexual abuse cases have been documented and sustained, critics say fair punishment remains hard-won under the municipal unions’ arbitration process.
Recently, a union disciplinary panel recommended a five-day suspension as punishment for a Revenue Department supervisor who demanded a subordinate let him fondle her breasts. Internal emails leaked to Philly Weekly later showed Law Department lawyers congratulating one another for successfully upping that punishment to eight days.
The offending supervisor was later demoted over another sexual harassment incident, a source said, but remains employed at the Revenue Department. City officials declined to comment, citing it as a private personnel matter.
“This is a culture of patting ourselves on the back over a non-victory,” said Nina Ahmad of such cases. “It’s a slap on his knuckles and ‘let’s move on,’ without understanding how did he have the impunity to do it in the first place.”